Is anger a necessary poison in policing?

Anger creates body chemistry that can be toxic if not flushed from the body by time or physical exercise

One of the first defenses police officers employ when advised to reduce stress is to claim that stress is an integral component to their success and survival. Indeed, the chemistry that the brain commands into action during a threat prepares the body to respond.

Like the superhero whose source of power is also their greatest weakness, without that fight or flight biochemical cocktail and constant alertness, law enforcement officers would be unable to function with effect. Can an officer balance readiness for action with serenity?

Trigger point for stress

Anger stew can only simmer so long before boiling over in a moment of rage.
Anger stew can only simmer so long before boiling over in a moment of rage. (Photo/Pixabay)

The trigger point for stress is the unease and anxiety that arises out of unresolved conflict of thought and purpose.

Heading to work for a 0700 roll call with a 20-minute commute slowed by unexpected roadwork, crash, or Mrs. McGullicotti taking her 1972 Dodge Dart for a spin at a dizzying 20 miles per hour and anxiety kicks in. Our morning goal is thwarted and the brain must now marshal resources to establish a solution to the problem.

Without the anxiety, the logic part of the brain might not have a signal to begin solving the problem, resulting in potentially negative consequences (which the primitive brain has already considered based on past experience, thus increasing the anxiety).

Anxiety or anger?

A cousin of anxiety is anger. While anxiety is stress in search of a solution, anger is stress where the solution is known but unattainable.

Anxiety can be guided much more easily than anger because anger knows what it wants to do but is prevented by some barrier from doing it. The barrier may be physical, psychological, or cultural. For example, worrying about what people think about you can cause anxiety and hyper-alertness in the form of painful self-consciousness. Being insulted can cause anger because by a quick retort or punch in the mouth the insulter can be silenced and proven inferior, but the law and social mores forbid a physical response to a verbal attack.

Both anxiety and anger create body chemistry that can be toxic if not flushed from the body by time or physical exercise. Much is written about the challenge of maintaining a healthy lifestyle of nutrition, rest and relationships while working in law enforcement. These strategies are of great importance to managing brain health, but the prescriptions for attitudes that help reduce stress are often lost on police officers.

Positive thinking – are you kidding?

Science has caught up with philosophy in claiming that positive thinking is key to good mental and physical health. With the reality that the brain constantly scans for snakes and thorns rather than rainbows and bluebirds, the discipline of seeking out positivity is difficult enough. Add to that the increased knowledge of danger and the mission to seek it out, the police officer can not sacrifice survival for beauty.

Other advice to reduce anger is to stop taking things personally, accept what is out of your control, stop being personally invested in outcomes and avoid moral outrage at injustice. For the police officer, whose life is invested in preventing infractions and injustice, the only alternative seems to be apathy and defeat. The constant barrage of injustice and obstruction that comes as the nature of the work is added to frustrations from department bureaucrats, lackadaisical coworkers and the tensions of homelife.

Denying and suppressing anger is always temporary. Anger stew can only simmer so long before boiling over in a moment of rage that inevitably results in embarrassment, estrangement, guilt and regret. If suppressed long enough, anxiety turns inward and begins to ravage the body. Anger turns against others and destroys relationships.

Realistic strategies

The most important step in getting a handle on anxiety and anger is self-awareness. Ironically, the best way for a person to find out if they have an anger problem is to ask the person closest to them. The simple question, “Do I seem to be angry fairly often?” will yield a lot of information. The answer might be a quick, “Yes,” but if there is a delay in answering or a look of fear in their eyes, the answer is also yes.

A second essential is understanding that while we describe anger and anxiety as an emotion, they are essentially body functions in response to perceived threats to your body, mind, or identity. Just as we have strategies to bring our heart rate, breathing, hunger and fatigue under control, learn how to recognize the precursors to anger, underlying unresolved life issues that keep anger near the surface, and the physical feeling of what happens to your body when anxious and angry. Slow, deep breathing, a brisk walk, making a list of things that bring joy, planning a vacation, getting a massage and joining a bowling team are all examples of dealing with the angry body.  

The primitive brain can take control of our rational thinking brain for a short time. It is possible to wrest control back to the front of the brain to consciously respond to your own body's impulses. Physically tracing your finger from the base of the brain, over the scalp, and tapping on the forehead can help focus the mind on controlling these impulses.

Getting the best rest, relationships and nutrition possible despite long and crazy hours can also make a big difference. Fortunately, more officers are getting the confidence to visit with a mental health professional for help with strategies to live and work better.

It is possible to stay safe and sane for an entire career.

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